Usability: October 2010 Archives

Periodic Table Design: The Good, the Bad and the Pretty?

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One of the most unique reference tools people will use is the periodic table of chemical elements. This is a tool where not only each block in the table has information (about each element), but the layout also has a meaning. It's no wonder the periodic table has become so iconic. It's even branched out into visualization methods, typefaces and other non-chemistry uses.

The Good

And....the periodic table is something that cries "hypertext". Don't you want to click each cell and find out more? Well I would. Especially if I had homework due the next day. And there are some great online periodic tables out there. A pretty good basic hyperlinked table is the Wikipedia periodic table which links to articles on each element. Another basic hyperlink table is at Chemical Elements.com (note light advertisements).

If you just need a PDF printout with everything verified, you can use one provided by NIST. NIST also has an online periodic table, but it's detailed, you probably need a degree in chemistry first.

The "Pretty"

And then there are some creative periodic tables, but nothing quite as creative as this art based Flash periodic table from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Creative, yet very, very perplexing.

First, I will say that the art is gorgeous, but what do the symbols mean and wheres the labels? For instance, if I want to find a measurement for the element mercury, I would have to remember where it is specifically (vs. a vague general location) then click on that symbol (which in this case is an old alchemy symbol). Huh? There is a more standard HTML chart form, but I'm still having problems understanding all the images.

I'm thinking this is meant to be more of an "explore the periodic table" rather than a pure reference tool, but is it serving its purpose? When I showed it to a group a people, we became so fixated on the mysterious images that we asked questions like "Why is there a chicken on the periodic table (Ga/gallium)?" rather than the more interesting question of "What does gallium do?" (apparently it helps make the blue in Blue-Ray).

I do think that periodic table can be exploratory. It's become the basis of the pop science book The Elements by Theodore Gray which is now an iPad application. It too has gorgeous pictures, but also the symbol and periodic table info on the same place.

Another one in a similar vein (which even has YouTube and Wikipedia mashups) is http://www.chemicool.com/, including an experiment where you can melt gallium in your hand.

Art vs. Design

I guess the RSC Flash periodic table gets to the issue of art vs. design and what the goals are. The interesting thing about art is that it can succeed without being functional, whereas I think needs to be functional in order to succeed.

For instance, I've always loved the Color Wheel Watch which has colored filters which rotate and cause color changes throughout the day...but I've never gotten one. It's beautiful, but I am not sure how quickly I could use it to tell time - for me it would be kinesthetic art. The same is true for this this algebra watch.

Am I being picky? Maybe. We could all use some kinesthetic art from time to time. But sometimes, I need a tool to quickly tell time or look up the atomic weight of an element, and to me the standard periodic table is a beautiful way to do that. The irony is that the art of the RSC table has interfered with the design instead of enhancing it.